Picture this: I’m standing in the middle of the cafeteria this afternoon, filling my coffee cup and using the updated Google Translate app to translate the sign on the “Breakfast Blend” sign from English to Spanish. (I’ll confess that I have been playing with this updated app a lot over the past 36 hours.) The amazing thing was not that I didn’t spill my coffee or drop my phone. The amazing thing was that I caused something of a still. Before I knew it was was surrounded by students. “Wow!” “That’s so cool!” What app is that?!” It’s as excited as I have seen students about language outside class…ever!

So this is a long way of saying the “Wow!” factor for the updated Google Translate app is real. The camera function is nifty. According to the language of the update it “Instantly translate images and photos.” The initial results is that Google Translate is good, not great: more survival than Cervantes. At the same time, one has to recognize that this technology could create a seismic shift in education, publication, travel–who knows what else? Does this empower me as a language teacher? Make me redundant? No sé.

Now, before I’m out of a job and we go all “Star Trek-y,” I’ll say this. I’ve already seen instances of syntax, grammar and meaning where the tool fails. For a rough translation or a push in the right direction, this will work just fine. That said, I don’t want my dentist or my diplomats using this just yet.

I expect the algorithms will get better and better. My rudimentary understanding of such things that the programmers will make improvements, yes, but that the crowdsourced nature of the translations will create improved results based on user results-responses, geo tags, etc. Think Wikipedia.

Now, this does get me thinking about all kinds of questions related to the fundamental nature of translation and the future of this–and similar–platforms.

  • When is a partial translation just fine?
  • Thinking about my dentist/diplomat example, what are the situations when we need the precision that can only come from a person?
  • What can we learn to respect about the strictly human abilities to create and understand language? What are the outer limits of what an app can do?
  • Recognizing the short-term potential, does a tool like this spur or stunt language skills? Does it open our mind to the rich potential of language learning or close minds towards colonial thinking?
  • If translation apps/algorithms like this help break the ice, where can we take the conversation? What does this mean for work in the classroom? ¿En la calle?
  • How can teachers use tools like this to introduce language and underscore fundamental principles? Should we embrace it? Reject it? Think about policies to regulate it?
  • Does this require language teachers to focus on cultural cues even more? Non-verbal nuances? Conceptions of place and power?
  • As more languages disappear every year, how can we use tools like this to preserve them? Should we? Should we be concerned?
  • How can updates from Google and Skype help us communicate across language barriers? How can we more freely share experiences and seek expert help?
  • Imagine what this could mean for real and virtual travelers if and when Google Glass goes more mainstream.

For now I’ll going to keep exploring, hoping I can keep creating buzz and keep from spilling coffee on my shirt.